Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Obiter Dicta, no.1

Similarly, Santayana’s aloofness from political and social duties, and in general his avoidance of communal activities, is explained, or at least symbolized, by his adherence to the kernel theory. It may also account for his tolerant attitude toward the lives that others chose, and his more or less egoistic concern about his own. A person who is secure within his or her kernel need not feel threatened if different people experience the world differently. That only means that their kernels are not the same as our kernel. And neither is ours necessarily in conflict with theirs, or inherently preferable to them. Likewise, one can help other people fulfill themselves not by directly contributing to their welfare, as the spiral theory would suggest, but merely by refusing to impose restrictive outer layers. Because no one can change the inner core, we do best to leave it alone. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of being let alone oneself.

In this context Santayana goes so far as to admit that he is both selfish and heartless in his attempt to “resist human contagion, except provisionally, on the surface, and in matters indifferent to me.” Still, as he also points out, his selfishness was never competitive or aggressive.

— Irving Singer, George Santayana, Literary Philosopher

The "kernel" theory here refers to a sense of self centered on some irreducible essence, whereas the "spiral" theory describes the view that the self is merely the sum total of experiences. As a fellow traveler of Spinozan pantheism, I'm inclined to see the spiral version as more accurate in an ontological sense, but in practice and temperament, I can certainly relate to this passage.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Gesture of Moral Rectitude

Ben Sixsmith:

This is one of several qualifications to be made if “virtue signalling” is to become a useful element of the English language. That we use our promotion of our beliefs to emphasise our righteousness need not mean we do not believe them. Bartholomew notes that when people tell you they hate the Daily Mail or UKIP “they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded”. True, but it also likely that they hate the Daily Mail and UKIP. Human motivations contain multitudes, and that which is self-serving can also be sincere.

Mr Bartholomew is a man of the right, as one can tell by his examples. Yet something else that must be said about virtue signalling is that its use is not restricted to particular people. When a Conservative or a libertarian sneers at the Guardian or the Green Party there may well be an extent to which they are signalling that they are admirably right wing, freedom loving or patriotic. When an unaffiliated blogger charges both sides with virtue signalling, he might be signalling that he is intelligent and independent-minded enough to be above the fray. It is universal and differs only in form.

This is a good point. As social animals, it's common for most human activities to be "about" more than their immediate goal or subject. There's nothing necessarily frivolous in this. Inferences and implications are inherent in our value-laden communication. Only a life of extended solitude might guarantee pure motives. We might say that the danger of signaling, then, is the elevation of style over substance with regard to perennially serious issues. I see two main ways in which this happens.

To get any use out of the term "virtue signaling," I would suggest it's best understood as being social media-specific. In the same way that the derisive term "social justice warrior" merely refers to those who re-enact the same old New Left-style identity politics on new technological platforms, "virtue signaling" encapsulates the manner in which being seen to have strong opinions on sociopolitical issues takes precedence over practical activism. Self-expression is what matters; changing minds and producing real-world effects are trifling, secondary concerns. Think of it as a word cloud — virtue signaling is prominently associated with online public shaming, viral consumer boycott campaigns, and Change.org petitions. It might be remembered, if at all, as a cultural marker of the mid-teens of this century. We can borrow Roger Scruton's remarks on Milan Kundera's famous definition of kitsch and alter them for our purposes — virtue signaling is about shifting the focus from the object to the subject. It is not about the thing signaled but the signaler. It is a fantasy of virtue without the real cost of achieving it. It encourages you to think, "Look at me performing this on social media — how nice I am and how lovable."

There are also structural factors about social media to consider. When even the most gifted writer would find it impossible to adequately convey all the nuances of his thought and the complexities of his character in a text-based medium, so much worse for the rest of us, then. Most people are not artists or philosophers; they're not particularly deep thinkers or good writers. But the online world is still largely text-based (even video blogging, to be watchable, requires at least a basic familiarity with the somewhat artificial conventions of public speaking). The finer details of our personalities can't be passively inferred by our friends and acquaintances through proximity, as typically happens in everyday life. We are thus called upon to consciously perform our characters to a large extent. We choose which aspects of ourselves to share, and we often craft those aspects for maximum effect.

But again, given the blunt tools most of us have to work with in that regard, our messages tend to be a bit crude. The natural tendency is to avoid complexity and emphasize the parts of our personalities that translate well to this medium, namely, our unambiguous likes and dislikes. This is intensified by the claustrophobic confines of platforms like Twitter, where reflexive reactions, snarky one-liners and vapid slogans proliferate at the expense of reflective thoughts which would require much more space for proper exposition. (Atrophying attention spans play a role as well.) In this environment, it's only natural that people would be motivated to pack words and images full of as much added significance as they can carry. Why should I bother arguing with you at great length when I can simply call you a fedora-wearing dudebro with a neckbeard and thus dismiss your clearly-deficient character together with your implied reactionary politics?

As for the second factor, Irving Howe wrote an essay in 1965 which is worth quoting from here:

Some of the people involved in that movement show an inclination to make of their radicalism not a politics of common action, which would require the inclusion of saints, sinners, and ordinary folk, but, rather, a gesture of moral rectitude. And the paradox is that they often sincerely regard themselves as committed to politics — but a politics that asserts so unmodulated and total a dismissal of society, while also departing from Marxist expectations of social revolution, that little is left to them but the glory or burden of maintaining a distinct personal style.

…The ‘new leftist’ appears, at times, as a figure embodying a style of speech, dress, work and culture. Often, especially if white, the son of the middle class — and sometimes the son of middle-class parents nursing radical memories — he asserts his rebellion against the deceit and hollowness of American society. Very good; there is plenty to rebel against. But in the course of his rebellion he tends to reject not merely the middle-class ethos but a good many other things he too hastily associates with it: the intellectual heritage of the West, the tradition of liberalism at its most serious, the commitment to democracy as an indispensable part of civilized life. He tends to make style into the very substance of his revolt, and while he may, on one side of himself, engage in valuable activities on behalf of civil rights, student freedom, and so on, he nevertheless tacitly accepts the ‘givenness’ of American society, has little hope or expectation of changing it, and thereby, in effect, settles for a mode of personal differentiation.

For context, keep in mind that in 1965, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was in full effect. Twentieth-century American liberalism was probably at its high-water mark. Belief in the power of good government to shape society for the better through rational planning was at its zenith. And yet Howe was presciently apprehensive. If the planned expansion of the welfare state were to fail — something he admitted was possible — there would be the problem of a lack of viable political outlets for those utopian energies. Lacking an inspired vision of where to go next, of how to genuinely improve things, political issues could devolve into little more than cyclical fashion.

Many post-utopian thinkers in the fifty years since then have reiterated Howe's point. Life in the West, for all its obvious flaws, is still pretty good. There is no evidence of a widespread and growing appetite for revolutionary upheaval. And yet, there is still a fair amount of status granted to people willing to profess a fervent belief in a glorious political future. (Apparently even secular societies retain a soft spot for some form of holy fool.) There will almost certainly come a day when geopolitical currents will shift enough to break up the current logjam of domestic politics in our decadent consumer societies, but until then, there is little for would-be radicals to do except maintain a "distinct personal style" and settle for a "mode of personal differentiation."

If Fukuyama's "End of History" theory is at all useful in describing our current world, the canopy of grand political ideologies has been cleared away, leaving the narcissism of small differences free to flourish. To the barricades — to defend Christmas from a nonexistent army besieging it, to attack the latent reactionary forces assembling within parts of speech and sentence structure. When we're all jaded consumers in a semi-liberal sorta-democracy, it suddenly matters deeply whether your politicians proudly wear flag lapel pins, whether you make it a point to choose books to read in accordance with racial and gender quotas, whether your neighbors wish you Merry Christmas or just Happy Holidays, or whether multinational corporations are open to the idea of hiring gay actors to star in their commercials.

In sum, virtue signaling is what happens when the identity reductionism of social media meets the withering of genuine political possibilities.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

I'm Trying to Understand Myself and Pinpoint Where I Am. When I Finally Get It Figured Out, I've Changed the Whole Damned Plan

Patrick Allitt, The Conservatives:

Here I argue that conservatism is, first of all, an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy. The attitude long predated the movement. Conservatives were skeptical and anti-utopian. They doubted the possibility of human, social or political perfection. Their attitude toward politics was comparable to the religious idea of original sin: people are unable to act entirely rationally or selflessly, human plans will go awry, well-meant actions will have unintended bad consequences. Planned societies are therefore impossible, and the attempt to create them will probably lead to chaos or tyranny. Similarly, they thought that human imperfection made war a permanent part of the human condition so that hopes for a world free of conflict were delusional. They thought of progress as possible, but not inevitable, and worried that ostensibly progressive changes were really sources of degeneration and decay.

Most of us have heard the saying, apocryphally attributed to various sources, about how a young conservative has no heart and a middle-aged progressive has no brain. It's amusing and dismaying to find oneself so neatly circumscribed by a platitude. It feels like getting outsmarted by a pet dog or cat. But nonetheless, it was indeed just shy of my fortieth birthday when I began to realize that my mildly-pessimistic temperament was much more deeply-rooted than my shallow affinity with modern leftish politics, and that this had significant implications I could no longer avoid reckoning with.

It was the phenomenon which I have come to think of as "third-wave political correctness" which forced me into this recognition (alternatively, "the social-media left"). The first wave was, of course, created by the baby-boom generation of the '60s. As Robert V. Daniels described it in his book Year of the Heroic Guerrilla:

The various movements of social protest around the world in the 1960s were akin in their ideology or in the loudly vented emotions that passed for such. They hated the established social order — governments that hid behind the democratic facade, corporate bureaucracies that smothered humanity with their technologies, and all forms of coercion of the powerless — minorities, family members and small nations. They were antiauthoritarian but intolerant, alienated but antiachievement, communitarian but antifamily. Infused with what Fraser calls 'the culture of insubordination', they sought self-realization in revolutionary action and approached politics as 'theater and confrontation'.

"Politics as theater and confrontation." The "loudly vented emotions" that pass for ideology. A brief tour around some current events/pop culture websites should be enough to demonstrate how little has changed in the half-century since the birth of the New Left.

In truth, the only thing that changed about me was my perspective. I have always been conscious of having what Michael Oakeshott called a conservative "disposition." But, chameleon-like, different facets of that disposition would present themselves according to my circumstances. I was a natural-born devil's advocate, and two years of debate class in school honed my instinct to search for the point or perspective that everyone else was overlooking. Growing up with my aggressively-right-wing family, I appeared liberal by default, and I was content to remain defined in opposition to them. Their support of the Iraq war seemed the antithesis of a conservative foreign policy to me, and I told them as much. Surrounded by fundamentalist preachers of intersectionality on the callow social-media left, though, I began to consciously notice that I had always thought identity politics is regressive and illogical. I had always believed that progressives overemphasized the collective over the individual. I had always been infuriated by the left-wing affinity for pretensions to mind-reading, also known as theories of "false consciousness" — essentially, the arrogant, rationalist assumption that if humans aren't doing what theory predicts they should do, the humans must be deficient. The only reason these various elements stayed fragmented in my self-awareness and hadn't combined into a more coherent worldview was due to what Christina Hoff Sommers recently referred to as "the liberal fear of looking conservative."

Shelby Steele has written often about what he calls the "dissociative" character of post-'60s liberalism. By that, he means it has been primarily concerned with distancing itself from America's various faults rather than solving them (or, as the case may be, admitting that some problems may be irresolvable). In public life, this takes the form of virtue signaling. In the social media environment, which is disproportionately dominated by people under the age of thirty with no interest in the minutiae of policy-making, "political" activity consists of little more than advertising one's personal platform. I stand for this, I oppose that; these are my allies, these are my enemies. Or, to repeat yet again, it consists of loudly vented emotions that pass for ideology. This is the second generation succeeding the '60s New Left to make demonstrative, passionate gestures in the direction of utopian change while betraying through their self-defeating tactics that they don't really believe any such change is possible. No attempt is made to convince those who don't already agree; no attempt is made to reckon with a reality which defies narcissistic willpower's attempts to redefine it. Numbly, dumbly, they keep repeating these patterns of behavior for lack of any better ideas or the desire to come up with any. Positioning themselves as morally superior to a demonized "conservatism" merely represents their frantic attempt to cling tightly to a fading identity.

Daniel J. Flynn makes a related point in his polemical book, A Conservative History of the American Left — ironically, for people who scorn conservatism above all else, the left has been predictably attacking private property, the profit motive, particularism, monogamy, the nuclear family, and religion as obstacles to true human flourishing, to no lasting effect, for over two hundred years now. Doing so has become an unthinking, comforting tradition itself. Yet perhaps due to their fixation on the glorious future, they fail to notice their own repetitive history. Why are poly relationships any more likely now to provide successful, superior alternatives to monogamy and nuclear families than they did in the early 1800s when socialist visionaries like Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and John Humphrey Noyes advocated them in vain? Why are we supposed to think that group love will ever be anything more than a fringe fad that rearranges relationship problems rather than solves them? Because young, unmarried, childless academic Fredrik deBoer thinks it's a good idea. And what does historical experience matter in the face of a good idea? Tomorrow is a bright new day, after all.

I recognized that the online virtue-signaling economy was an absolutely worthless bubble, and I withdrew any investment I had in it before it could collapse. At the same time, recognizing how progressives were compelled, for their own psychological needs as much as any potential real-world benefit, to relentlessly pursue "progress" for its own sake made me reluctant to identify with them any longer. And finally, as someone who favors the power of aesthetics to make life worth living whatever the circumstances over the power of politics to eliminate life's contingencies and unfairness, I rebelled against the progressive philistines who strive to subordinate the arts to their totalizing vision of politics above all else.

Still, nomenclature obscures as often as it clarifies. Edmund Fawcett, for example, positions liberalism as the reasonable, realistic middle ground, in between conservatism, which projects its idealism backwards into the imagined past, and socialism, which does likewise in the opposite direction. In Fawcett's telling, conservatism asks us to accept too much, socialism asks us to change too much, and only liberalism recognizes that we must simply do our best while hoping or praying for the wisdom to know the difference. His "four ideas" that constitute liberalism's core — social harmony is impossible, human power is not to be trusted, progress is both possible and desirable, and universal civic respect must be honored in the form of "negative freedom" — are perfectly compatible with Allitt's description of conservatism above. Perhaps they're both "classical liberals"? Or "small-c conservatives"? Or perhaps there's just a bit of overlap in that Venn diagram, and we shouldn't trouble ourselves overmuch trying to precisely define it.

Whatever we call this political philosophy, I would add one observation to it from my experience: agency is an unwelcome burden to many people, and they are always tempted to relieve themselves of it. Whether it's my right-wing relatives or social-media leftists, both of them know the yearning to dissolve one's agency in the rushing waters of teleology and the profound sense of relief that comes from believing they have discovered the essential truth, the skeleton key, the one-size-fits-all idea that explains history and predicts the future and therefore absolves them from doubting and questioning. The task, then, is to cultivate the strength to resist such delusions. To ask, before accepting certainty's intoxicating embrace, what I might have missed. To have faith, I suppose, that there's always something I missed, and therefore the search must go on.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Now I FInally See the Sun

It was a long night for everyone
The moon yields to a sober sun
And her virgin light

Can't unsee the things I saw
Fallen devils, false gods
In the violet light

Was it always this magnificent?
'Cause it feels so different
In the morning light

Wasn't ready for what I'd find
Whatever it is has turned the knife
It was a long, long night

I'm finally reaching to the sun

— Guster, "Long Night"